Frindsbury Barn

frindsbury-barn-insideTwo years ago I set off on my walk across the estuary of North Kent and begun writing my book, On the Marshes, which is due out next year. On that first walk I passed a beautiful barn, Frindsbury Barn and wrote the piece below.

On the Marshes – Deleted Scene – May 2014

“There was another place my mind turned to. A place I had passed on a quiet lane as I had pounded wet and tired into Strood on a Bank Holiday Monday last May. I had seen a footpath leading away through long grass and then a glimpse of a red roof and, despite it all, I had been intrigued and taken a diversion. There I had found a beautiful black barn, ancient, peg tiled, set on a chalk ridge commanding a view of the river. Two wings projected out from the barn doors, little slatted windows could be seen further along and one end rose several stories high. It was set within a meadow of vetch and cat’s ear and yarrow, the kind of place where bee orchids bloomed. It was surrounded by high metal fencing, one end covered in scaffolding. A sign on the door read, ‘Unsafe, do not enter.’ It was magnificent and vulnerable. I wanted it.

For one moment I entertained a vision of buying the barn with crowd funding, restoring this beautiful building to the people of Medway and creating a centre where I could showcase that there was an alternative way to live. Still, there was. There was still a way to live that was in tune with nature, in tune with the seasons and the basic needs of humanity. We would run courses where ordinary people could learn the skills to lead a more sustainable life. Where the unemployed, the drug dependent, people on probation and those suffering from all manner of 21st century meltdowns could work outdoors with their hands, learn skills and achieve something which would set them back on the right road in life. We would run meetings where we would decide how to work as a community to protect this beautiful area from the ugliness which was poised to engulf it. We would all leave, chilled and purposeful and walk down the hill to the train station. There would be no parking.”

front-of-barn-2

Today I visited this beautiful building as part of the Heritage Open House scheme and found out that all my dreams look likely to come true. The owners are planning to convert the barn using apprentices and farm the surrounding land using traditional techniques. It is a project I very much hope to be a part of but still needs funding to see it reach its potential. Find out more here.

On the marshes – To be published

14 writing by the estuaryAlmost a year since I finished my journey across the North Kent Marshes meeting people living alternative ways of life, I am happy to announce that I have just signed a publishing contract with Little Toller Books.

Little Toller Books are an independent publisher who look for writers who ‘seek inventive ways to reconnect us with the natural world and celebrate the places we live in.’

On the Marshes follows my journey from Gravesham to Whitstable meeting houseboat owners, chalet dwellers and friends of hermits living in the woods. The journey was a way of understanding my own experience of living in a caravan on the marshes for three years, my eviction from my home and the subsequent breakdown in my long term relationship.

I hope the book will help people see the beauty and value of an atmospheric corner of England which is under constant threat and give an insight into why some people follow an alternative route in life.

Many thanks to Little Toller for seeing the books potential, to my agent Joanna Swainson of literary agency Hardman and Swainson for working so hard to get me a deal and mostly to the many wonderful, kind, brave people who took the time to meet me and share their stories with me.

Getting a publishing deal is a huge and longed for step for me but I get the feeling that a new journey is just beginning and their will be a lot of learning to do before the book is finally on the shelves. Like any big and scary change in my life I am dealing with the only way I know how and have begun to write something new.

 

Always another fight.

Always another fight.

how many meds

Burntwick Island, a great place to land a sea plane……Not!

I feel these days there is a never ending stream of battles to fight. No sooner do you breathe a small sigh of relief at the squashing of one scheme poised to damage the places you love then another comes along. It wears you down, but I guess that’s the point.

On Thursday by accident I hear of a proposal to begin a sea plane business in the Medway Estuary. The guy shows me the map of where the planes are planning to land, between the breeding tern colony on Burntwick Island and the RSPB reserve of Normarsh. This area is a RAMSAR site rightly protected as one of the most important places for breeding and overwintering waders and wildfowl in the country.  Peel Ports are running a consultation I am told but I am amazed that the proposals have even reached this stage.

I call my friends, Medway Swale Estuary Partnership, the RSPB, Countryside professionals in Medway Council. None of them have heard of these plans. So just who is being consulted?

Having raised the alarm things swing into action. The conservation bodies who protect this area begin to add their voices to the consultation.

“Well done you, for making people aware of this,” my friend says before going on to tell me that a development company have just won their appeal to build on the site at the end of my road.

Bakersfield is a scrubby brownfield site chocha block with songbirds, including nightingales, orchids and reptiles. McCulloch Homes’ original planning application had been thrown out by Medway Council as the site is just too valuable for wildlife but now the developers have won on appeal because the council isn’t meeting the government’s demands for housing at a quick enough pace.

I had protested against these plans, breathed a sigh of relief when they were dropped and now I have to swing into action to protest again. I do so, writing to Buglife, to the council, to my MP but it is exhausting, it is time consuming, it is never ending. It is designed to grind you down and make you stop saying ‘No.’ But saying No is still our right, it is the most important thing we can do. While I still live in some semblance of a democracy I will keep going. Raise awareness, protest, say no. giving in is not an option.

To contribute to the consultation for sea planes landing in the Medway Estuary contact james.goodfellow@peelports.com

To protest against the planned development at Bakersfield contact planning.representation@medway.gov.uk

 

Estuary Life – The Next Step

I have signed with an agent but where next?

I have signed with an agent but where next?

I am pleased to tell you that I have just signed with literary agency Hardman and Swainson who will be hard at work hopefully finding Estuary Life a publishing deal in the near future, but will it still be called Estuary Life? Probably not, we are currently toying with various titles, something I will be the first to say I have never been good at, but hopefully we will come up with something which appeals soon.

Joanna Swainson was an early advocate for the idea behind this book and gave me faith that I was onto something when all I had was one chapter and some rough plans. She came to visit the marshes on a terribly wet winters day and subsequently her and partner, Nick Russell-Pavier joined me on a outing to Elmley Marshes. I am really looking forward to working with Joanna over the next few months.

Having wrestled this book into existence I am most certainly into my writing groove and already beginning to think about ideas for my next book. If you would like advice on nature writing and publishing then why not come along to one of the two nature writing courses I am running in the next couple of weeks for the Up on the Downs Festival. See the events page for more details.

 

An Interview with Stephen Turner in The Mudlark

Stephen Turner in Darnet Fort

Stephen Turner in Darnet Fort copyright: Stephen Turner

Last year I was lucky enough to interview the artist Stephen Turner in his studio at Chatham Dockyard. Stephen talked to me about his time camping on Hoo and Darnet Islands in the Medway Estuary and his concerns for the future of the area. The article is published this month in the Mudlark, an annual publication by the Medway and Swale Estuary Partnership. Read a copy of the magazine here;

http://issuu.com/medwaycouncil/docs/mudlark-2015-lr

or read the full article below

Escape to an Island-page-001

Escape to an Island-page-002

Escape to an Island-page-003

Estuary Life – The Final Leg

For the last year I have been walking across the marshes of North Kent writing about the lives of the people who have chosen to live in an alternative, simpler way. I began the last leg of my trip by catching a lift aboard the Edith May, a Thames sailing barge.

Ed and Geoff man the Edith May

Ed and Geoff man the Edith May

Estuary Life – Lower Halstow to Upnor

I climbed onto the Edith May, a Thames Sailing barge built in 1906, restored by Geoff Grandsen and his son Ed. In her early years she had worked these waters, collecting grain from Great Yarmouth and delivering it to London. Geoff had bought her as a wreck for £5000 and was restoring her, a project which was costing a lot more.

The crew prowled the decks, waiting for high water, Ed scaled the rope ladders, the kettle rang out from below, the chatter was all of laying up and bilge pumps, hard water and rigging and mostly about the barge match that the Edith May was to compete in the following day, a competition, Ed told me, “had stopped being competitive for a while but was now a serious business again.”

Finally we loosened the ropes holding us to the dock and motored out into the estuary, piped away by the oystercatchers. We passed the islands of Milford Hope, streaks of saltings disappearing beneath the rising tide. The land stretched away, all the miles I had walked. The path to Lower Halstow I had ran along in the rain shower, Darnet Island, where the rats danced at night, Bumbleness Creek, with its German U-boat. The place I had swum with Carl. It was the river I had read about with Mr Coles Finch, the river of Francis Drake and prison ships, of Man O Wars and the Dutch fleet coming to burn them. It was the river of dredgers and smacks, bawley boats and barges like this one. 1 Ed up the rigging

Ed climbed into the rigging once more, to untie the ropes which bound the top sail, the sail flapped overhead. Craning my neck to see him at work it was like looking up into the roof of a cathedral. The rust red wing unfurled and flapped in the wind. Ed shimmied down again and began pulling on ropes. It wasn’t work for the feeble, he hauled on the rope, using his whole body strength, bending at the knees and swinging back up to snatch the rope and pull again. I felt exhausted just watched him and happily gobbled down chocolate biscuits which came with a welcome cup of tea.

As we passed Hoo Ness Island other barges could be seen, moored up.

Ed pointed out his competitors.10 the competition

“The Edme,” he said, pointing to a slightly slimmer, smaller boat, manned by boys with dreadlocks and a feisty dog that ran along the decks barking abuse at us. “It is the number one barge,” he said, eyeing it with envy.

The men on board were busy polishing the woodwork.

“Too late for that,” he shouted to the crew. “You’re either ready or not.”

The crew waved back in acknowledgement.

“No one beats it,” Ed said and bit down hard on his chocolate biscuit.

Ed eyes up the competition.

Ed eyes up the competition.

 

Estuary Life – The next step

Estuary Life notebook and scallop shell

Estuary Life notebook and scallop shell

For the last year I have been walking the estuary from Lower Higham in Gravesham to Whitstable. Along the way I have met houseboat owners, chalet dwellers, plotland holders and friends of hermits. All winter I have dwelt in my cellar writing up their stories along with my own tale of living in, and finally being evicted from, a caravan on the marshes.

At the end of the month I will take the last part of this journey, heading back to the Hoo Peninsula where I used to live and the little church on the marshes where I started my trip. It has been a journey both physically and metaphorically. I have learnt things about myself and re-evaluated my past as much as I have found out the stories of others. Now the end is in site.

Last week, on a wet Wednesday afternoon, I sent the first 13 chapters, 70,000 words off to the literary agents whose interest in the idea and my writing was the spur I needed to leave my job, go freelance and begin this journey. The next day one of them got back to me, telling me they loved what I had written and wanted to take me on as a client.

This is brilliant news. These days getting an agent is almost as hard as getting a publisher. No agent will take you on unless they think they can get you published. It is the first step on the road to seeing that book on the shelf at Waterstones. It has been a long time coming. I wrote my first ‘book’ at 12, sent my first full length novel to a publisher at 14 ( clearly a precocious and unrealistic child). I should have been leaping for joy at this positive feedback.

Weirdly, I stalled. Can someone tell me why? Looking down the barrel of success, I was scared. Partly it’s because this book is such a personal account of my life in the caravan. Fine for strangers to read it but I am freaked out at the thought of people I know reading stuff I would never actually say. I guess also it’s the thought that success could, on the one hand change everything and, on the other hand, be a damp squib.

Still, I have sucked it up and am meeting agents next week to talk about the next step. It is exciting, scary exciting, but that’s a good thing….I think.

A pot of jam and a cabbage

I returned this week to visit some of the people I interviewed last year as part of my Estuary Life book. It was the first chance each person had to look at what I had written, a scary moment for me as well as them.

I have been very aware throughout the whole project how people have trusted me to let me into their homes and lives and reveal sometimes very private feelings about their situations so it was really important to me that they would like how I had portrayed them.

Along with the manuscript I bought each person a gift. What do you buy for people who have been so generous? In the end I bought them something related to their section of the story.

Angela at the shack in the woods

Angela at the shack in the woods

Angela Welford had opened up the plotland shack that her mother, the author Lena Kennedy, had built along with her husband in the 50’s. Afterwards, over lunch with her family, friends and neighbours, they had reminisced “It’s not like the old days, then people were always popping around with a pot of jam, or a cabbage from the garden.” so Angela’s gift was easy. A pot of my special plum and mulled wine jam and a cabbage, if not from my garden, at least personally selected by me from the supermarket.

12 a parting drink

enjoying Alex’s homebrew on board his boat

Alex, the houseboat owner and former Radio Caroline D.J. wouldn’t let me leave without trying his blueberry brandy. I returned the complement with a bottle of my homemade cherry brandy.

Martin Simpson had let me stay on his houseboat at the end of my first weekend’s walk. I turned up at his luxury home on a damp Bank Holiday, dripping onto the parquet flooring and barely able to string a sentence together, I was so exhausted. He had poured me a hot bath and fed me pie and beer. He looked quite delighted when I returned the compliment and sent me a text later that evening to tell me pie was delicious.

martin looking happy with his pie

martin looking happy with his pie

All three people were thankfully happy with their part in the story. Now it’s time to brave the agents.

All Blue

Spent a beautiful winter’s day walking from Faversham to Whitstable on what I thought was to be the last leg of my trip across the marshes for my book, Estuary Life. Turns out I was wrong. Saturday 30th November 2014 – 12 on the beachOutside Seasalter

The bait diggers are heading home. There is a nip in the air as the day turns. I am conscious of losing light and although I can see Whitstable crawling over the hills and ridges to the east I know I still have a fair walk ahead. I evict the sand flies from my lunch box and walk on.

My shadow grows long across the beach, my feet walking on sand, my head somewhere out in the pools, my hair wiggling into the mud rivulets.

Mist grows from the sea and the light glows blue around me, blue sky, reflected in blue pools, the blue haze of the grazing marsh on Sheppey, the shadows, blue, the mussel shells, blue, the little blue sticks of a million cotton buds flushed down toilets and washed to beaches on the tide, all blue.

I reach the Neptune pub. It is late afternoon, the tide is sloshing around the base of the groins. The seals I saw earlier will be swimming out there now, diving for fish beneath the silver skin of this molten liquid. Directly opposite, I can see, through the hazy light, the cliffs of Warden’s Point on Sheppey. I have reached the mouth of the Swale, the end of the Estuary. If I walk on then I will be out to sea. It is the end of the journey but it doesn’t feel like the end, it feels unfinished.

It is no good, the sun is going down and I can’t walk on so maybe for one last time I need to walk back.